(Originally appearing in Genre Magazine.)

He Doesn’t Wear A Pointy Black Hat or Fly on a Broomstick at Full Moon, but Christopher Penczak is a Fully Initiated Witch. Not the kooky, Hollywood Cartoon Kind of Witch, but a Practitioner of the Spiritual Discipline of Wicca.

When I was a young boy, my parents took to me St. Joseph’s Catholic Church every week for mass. I watched intently, somewhat dazzled by what was happening up on the altar. Candles, incense, chalices, bread and wine involved in an intricate ceremony that I could only watch. Special words were chanted or sung over the Eucharist, the thin, bread-like wafers. The priest said the bread was the body of our lord and savior, Jesus, given to us. It still looked like wafers to me, but I could feel magic in the air. Something special was happening.

I went to Catholic school all my life, until college, taking religion classes right along with math, science and history. At the very beginning, early in grammar school, I was a believer. I liked watching the show and singing along. In many ways weekly mass was my first musical experience. But in class I started asking questions and didn’t understand or like the answers I was given. I wanted to know why people couldn’t participate more. Why did you need the priest to do it all? Why weren’t there any women priests? Why didn’t the nuns have a part in the ritual? My question fell on deaf ears. My answers were something like “that’s the way it’s always been” or “that’s the way God wants it.” Others would quote the fall of Adam, with Eve’s role in the drama barring woman from being priests. None of this felt right to me. The dazzle of my religion started to tarnish. It didn’t have the same magic to it.

By the time I was in high school, I realized my own feelings and ideas were in direct conflict with my religion. Religion classes were intertwined with morality classes. I found being a gay boy trying to grow up in this unfriendly environment very difficult. I remained closeted. Coming out in an all boys school is particularly tough. I was told it was ok to be gay, but not to act upon it. That was a sin. The only shining light from this school was a favorite nun who was my religion teacher. Sister said, “Talk to God everyday. I talk to HER all the time.” I realized there were other ways to look at religion. I knew I believed in something. I felt spirituality before in my life, and I knew that Catholicism was not the way for me.

I flirted with atheism for a bit, but continued my quest for the Holy Grail, a religion that would accept me for who I am and empower me to live my life and find happiness. The quest was long and difficult, filled with a few dark nights of the soul, but guidance came from an unexpected quarter. Little did I know it would lead back to the original myths of the Grail and its Celtic lands.

Since I was seven, I hung out with a funky, fun art teacher. We had lessons in small groups every Friday afternoon. We became friends outside of class by the time I was in high school, and I would hang out in her studio. Our relationship was not the typical teacher student one. We talked for hours about art, history, myths and men. Slowly she would introduce concepts of magic from classic mythology, talking about the pre-Christian Goddess cults, the Egyptian priesthood and magical symbols. Finally she “came out of the broom closet” and told me she was a witch. I thought she was crazy. “Witches are fantasy. They’re not real,” I told her and made several Wizard of Oz jokes. I was a smart ass teen, but had to admit the metaphysical ideas behind it fascinated me. And the parallels between the social stigma of being a witch, and being gay intrigued me. We both had closets. At the time, I was still not out of mine.

My friend was not trying to recruit me in any way. She knew I was searching, and thought the craft might answer some questions. I borrowed books and eventually participated in rituals with her. She even invited my mother to show we weren’t doing anything questionable. My mother got more interested in witchcraft as time went on. Both of us later went on to study with her teacher, Laurie Cabot, the “official witch of Salem, Massachusetts.” I think somewhere in the back of my mother’s head, she feared I was joining a cult, but once she saw the positive change in me, she got genuinely intrigued too.

In witchcraft classes we studied a variety of topics I thought were unrelated. We surveyed world religions for the similarities and differences. We studied quantum physics, hermetic philosophy, modern psychology and European history. They all tie together in the art and science of witchcraft. I learned the term “flaming faggot” actually came from when homosexuals were put death by the burning stake right along with accused witches during the Spanish Inquisition. My two histories are even more intertwined.

Gays and lesbians were often considered special people in pre-Christian, pagan, societies around the world, honored for their unique balance of masculine and feminine energies. Many were psychically talented, and considered healers and counselors. Witchcraft honors the divine both through the masculine and feminine, through the God and Goddess. Sexual union through these divine beings creates all life. Their union is symbolized through a ritual with a blade and chalice, called the Great Rite, where witches partake in these waters of life. Some groups focus more on the Goddess energies, some on the God. Gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people are welcomed with open arms, and some ritual groups, or covens, might be exclusive gay or lesbian. I was taught “all acts of love” are acts of worship to the Goddess. Sexual preference did not matter.

Unfortunately witchcraft is misunderstood by the general populace and mainstream media. The disinformation campaign started with the Romans conquering of the Celtic druids and continued by the Church’s persecution of pagan Europe. Witchcraft is a pre-Christian spirituality, with roots in our Paleolithic past, where the Earth Mother was honored, along with her consort, the Animal Lord. It has nothing to do with Satanism. Satan is a relatively modern Christian mythological concept, combing images of fallen angels, biblical adversaries and popular pagan gods like the horned gods Cernunnos and Pan. The gods of the old religion become the demons of the conquering one. The Church was trying to sway pagan believers to the new faith by telling them their gods were really devils. For the most part, witches do not believe in the Christian cosmology, so they don’t even believe in Satan. In our worldview, no one tempts you or forces you to do things. Witches believe in responsibility. No one is trying to steal your soul. Where is that in the natural world? Nature is our scripture. Things live, die and are born again in other forms, like the changing seasons. No one sits in judgement, but what you put out, good and bad, comes back to you. This is called the Law of Return by some traditions, or the Law of Three, feeling what comes back to you is amplified three fold.

As for some other terms in the craft, Wicca is the modern revival of the religion of witchcraft. The tradition is undergoing resurgence as the entire community comes out of the broom closet. Some call themselves Wiccans and others witches, but usually it means the same thing. The word witch applies to both men and women. There are no warlocks. Pagan simply means “of the land” and usually applies to non-Judeo-Christian-Muslim religions that are often polytheist, meaning they recognize divinity comes in more than one God, and can manifest as many Gods and Goddesses. Pagan is a broader category. There are many different types of pagans. Witches are one of the most popular groups. I tell my students now that Pagan is to Wicca as Christian is to Catholic.

Witches do magic and spells. Simply they are opening up to natural forces and energies in the universe. They are tapping their own psychic abilities. They are attuning to the energy around them. Spells are like focused prayers. You are asking for a specific event. Rituals are techniques to raise these energies and intents, to amplify them so they occur. We all create our own reality by the thoughts we put out. Witches are simply more conscious of that process and put out strong thoughts. Witches also ask these spells harm none and be for the good of all involved. By taking on the power, you take on more responsibility.

During these classes I had experiences that were nothing less than mind blowing. They opened me up to the interconnectedness of all things. At first I was just looking for a philosophy, an arm chair spirituality. I understood the concepts, but thought this whole magic thing was self-delusion. I had many doubts. At first they seemed like relaxation techniques and pop psychology. Ritual was almost too similar to the Catholic mass. I wanted to escape my past religious associations for something new. Later I found out that much of the mass was borrowed from pagan traditions. Jesus was not the first god to sacrifice himself. The myths of Dionysus, Osiris and Tammuz hold similar stories.

We did an exercise in astral travel, projecting your “mind” outside your body, to explore someplace you’ve never been. You awake from the trance and draw a map of the place. I was amazed to visit this place and find it 90% correct. Even with things I doubted. We did psychic healing, where you would receive the name, age and residence of a person unknown to you, and then accurately describe them physically, and “psychically diagnose” a disease or injury that had been physically diagnosed by a doctor. Once could be a fluke, but we each did it three times. I expected to fail, but passed with flying colors. Other experiences included meeting spirit guides, past life regression and spells. They were incredible experiences, but now I’ve come to expect the incredible in everyday life. I always appreciate it, but have decided to live a magical life all the time. I found my Holy Grail.

After a period of training, I was initiated as a witch. All my family and friends knew I was a witch before they knew I was gay. One of the tenets of witchcraft is to develop self-esteem. To do magic successfully, you need to be confident. I wanted to do magic, so I had to get my head together. By becoming a witch, you are your own priest or priestess, exactly what I was looking for when I looked at the Catholic altar. You need no intermediary. But this responsibility requires a lot of soul searching and introspection. My decision to follow this path took me out of a spiral of doubt and fear about my sexuality, happiness and future. After my initiation, in college, I felt it was time to come out and be myself. All my fears were dashed, and for the most part, friends and family greeted me with open arms. It was a wonderful, life affirming process for me, and I don’t know if I ever would have found the courage without the spiritual support I found in witchcraft.

I later found my life mate through a love spell designed to find the person I meant to be with for this life. Imagine my surprise to find he is not a witch, but comes from another pagan tradition. Our shared spiritual life, doing rituals together often, only deepens our love and commitment to each other. We are very happy together.

Coming out of the broom closet as a witch helped me come out of all my other closets and be true to myself. My life’s calling is now teaching and healing using these principals. Most of my own students come from a questioning background. Many are queer too. At times it’s like looking into a mirror in the past. I am proud to aid in their empowerment, regardless if they choose this path or not. I want to share all the blessings I’ve received with anyone w